Thursday, 28 May 2020

Don't Lose Your Head (The Dead Queens Club by Hannah Capin)

"She was so smart, and so ambitious, and all anyone remembers is that she stole somebody's boyfriend." - Hannah Capin, The Dead Queens Club, page 423

This was one of my most anticipated 2019 releases (and I got to it a year late, as per tradition). It drops Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, Catherine Parr, Lady Rochford, and other assorted nobles of the Tudor Court into an American high school. The Tudors are my favourite part of English history, so I had high expectations going in and this did not disappoint.

Cleves (or Annie Marck from Cleveland) meets Henry at overachievers camp. She's a (sometimes questionable, even in-universe) feminist who writes for the school paper and has no idea what she wants to do with her life, and he's number 8 on the school American football team. They date, briefly, and she does carry a torch for him, but, mostly, they're partners in crime. This helps her to be a terribly unreliable narrator. Cleves does not believe that Anna blew up the tower, or that Katie is cheating, but, as Henry's best friend, she does have a tendency to side with him. Seeing him through her eyes makes him seem charming and funny, until the layers start to be peeled away and she begins to see him as the other girls do. Stealing Katie's car, for example, at the beginning. It's clearly a terrible thing to do, even without undoing all the work she did in the afternoon, but after she points this out she caves when he dismisses it as a prank. Henry's behaviour towards his girlfriends in general is terrible. Without spoiling anything, he cheats on them repeatedly, whilst loudly complaining whenever (he believes) they are cheating on him. Like a royal court would for their king, his peers seem to ignore his cheating whilst dismissing Anna and Katie as a boyfriend-stealer and a "slut" respectively.

If you like Tudor history and vindication, this is the book for you. Take its take on Anne Boleyn, for example.

(Your bias is showing.)

And how. Henry VIII is, in my opinion, one of the earliest examples we have of a man who thinks he wants an intelligent, independent woman (and I'm not only referring to Anne Boleyn here), but very much does not. What do we know about Anne Boleyn? She was smart, ambitious, unafraid to speak her mind, politically-engaged, and a reformist. She also decided to focus all of those traits on charming the king away from his first wife, which is terrible, but it should not be overlooked that Henry (like pretty much every king) had many affairs. Anne was neither the first, nor the last. Capin does not shy away from showing her manipulations of Henry, but she also doesn't portray her as a one-note seductress. It's a balanced, nuanced portrait of a historical figure who was executed on false charges for not giving birth to a son, and possibly badmouthing the King's pride.

I absolutely LOVED the more minor conflicts between the characters, from the ones that only got a couple of lines to the ones that lingered throughout. You've got Lina's belief in chastity until marriage vs Cleves' unapologetic sex positivity (and neither character is demonised for their views), Cleves' belief in uncensored truth vs Cat's insistence that there must be standards and people should not be able to publish whatever slander they wish. Both characters make good points, but I think Cat comes across as the more mature of the two. She seems to float above the drama, even when throwing herself smack into the middle of it.

I found the structure slightly confusing at times, especially towards the beginning of the story where we're flicking back and forth between overachiever camp before Cleves moved to Lancaster and the school year after she moved. Your brain does get used to it though, and I thought it was an interesting choice to tell the wives out of order. It also makes sense, given that Cleves, our narrator, is girlfriend number four.

In conclusion, if you're looking for a vindicating, uplifting take on the Tudor court, you need to read this.
What's your favourite historical era?

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Ten Reasons I Love Sports Stories

I'm really into sports stories at the moment. I'm watching four different shows for a sports challenge, I stocked up on Haikyuu!! volumes for lockdown (if you have added me/follow me on Goodreads, you may have noticed), and I recently bought The Foxhole Court (I have heard good things) and hope to read it soon. Today's Top Ten Tuesday prompt therefore felt like the perfect excuse to gush over my genre of the moment. 

I love sports stories because...

The Character Dynamics are on Point

I love well thought-out character dynamics. This is probably the thing I focus on most in my own writing. I mean, who needs a plot if you have ridiculously intricate character dynamics, right? 

(You do.)

I once read somewhere that the sport - the very subject that the sports story is obstensibly about - can be switched out with pretty much any other sport and the plot will remain more or less the same. The argument made was that sports stories are really about character development and character dynamics. If I manage to find it again, I will link it! 

(It was a goddamn Tumblr post about sports anime.)

And it was 100% valid. Sports stories can be repetitive and fairly predictable. Playing with character dynamics can make each match feel fresh and exciting. At minimum, sports stories tend to hyper-focus in on the dynamic between a character or team and their major rival, but series that focus on teams and clubs also tend to have numerous interesting dynamics within the group. We can't have everyone gelling too soon now, can we? Bring on the drama!

(Haikyuu!! has spoiled you.)

Haikyuu!! is flawless. Do not fight me on this.

Rooting for the Heroes is Important

You can get through a lot of stories by only caring about the supporting cast, but sports stories require interesting and (at least somewhat) likeable heroes to get the reader invested. After all, why would anyone care about the results of a low-stakes, fictional sports match if they weren't rooting for the heroes?

But Likeable Rivals are Necessary Too

If you feel like you're rooting for all of the characters and you're never sure who you want to win it all, all the better.

Backstory Creates Investment

Look. It is very hard to care about people you know nothing about maybe winning a competition (this is not entirely true - people can get very invested in everything from professional sport to TV talent shows - but just go with it). In sports stories, you watch the characters fight every step of the way for the pay-off. Why do you care? Because, somewhere along the line, the author has tricked you into being emotionally invested.  

Sport = Action

Bored of battles? Sport is another type of action. More friendly and with less bloodshed, perhaps, but still action. It can be just as dynamic and thrilling as a fantastical war.

Romance Takes a Backseat

Sports stories tend to focus on the advancement of a team or character to a higher skill level in a particular sport. If the hero isn't trying to make it to a higher-level tournament, they are facing off against a rival of a greater level, or trying to prove themselves to a grizzled, unyielding mentor. Whilst it may be there as a subplot, romance tends to take a backseat to the main character's unapologetic passion for their hobby.

The Unapologetic Passion

Sports stories feature characters who chase a hobby that may seem inconsequential to most with a doggedness that would disturb most obsessed stalkers. Sleep? Love? Grades? All things to be sacrificed to become the very best at even an obscure sport. 

It's a bit of a cliche that the heroes always win, but, personally, I can think of very few books, films, and shows of this genre that I have read or watched where the characters win it all. The pursuit of something about which a character is truly passionate is what matters, not the accolades they gain from that pursuit. The value is in the journey rather than the destination.

It is, with Great Horror, that I Have Recently Realised that I Qualified as a Sporty Kid

Although it often always came as a great shock to my PE teachers, I actually took part in quite a bit of sport outside of school. I danced for nearly a decade. I tried gymnastics for a little while. I swam competitively from the ages of 9 to 15. I was - admittedly - not particuarly good at any of it (I am neither graceful nor flexible and, as a swimmer, my form was good, but I had no speed), but I had fun with it, so I happen to enjoy reading about it. Sue me.

The Sheer Determination

All I'm saying is that fiction conditioned me from an early age to view determination as a superpower all of its own.

Tell me about a genre you love! 
(And don't forget to link me to your TTT post.)

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Necromance (Grave Witch by Kalayna Price)

"You're mortal. You've always been dying." - Kalayna Price, Grave Witch

Grave Witch follows Alex Craft, who is barely making ends meet taking cases to help the bereaved speak with dead family members and working as a consultant for the police. When the Governor is killed, her sister asks her to get a look at the body. This puts her at odds with Detecive Falin Andrews and smack in the middle of a plot involving a number of ritual murders.

This reminded me of The Dresden Files, Alex being a witch who assists the police. However, Alex is much more specialised in the type of magic she uses. As a Grave Witch, Alex's speciality is speaking with the dead. She even knows Death himself, who appears as an attractive young man in tight jeans. Not going to lie, I was entirely motivated to pick this book up because a story with Death as a love interest appealed to me. There's a very cute scene early on where she helps him drink coffee, because, with her help, he can touch things in the living world.

But this is a paranormal story from 2010, so, of course, there's a love triangle. This brings us to Falin Andrews (side note: I guessed the major reveal about him based on his name alone). If you like enemies to lovers, Alex and Falin's dynamic might be for you. Personally, I wasn't keen on him. He's kind of possessive (although, I suppose Death is too, in a more subtle way), he's angry, he doesn't listen... I think he's supposed to be hot, but the word I would use would be brutish. Considering Ashen and Death were smooth and (at times) adorably awkward respectively, I'm amazed at how unlikable Falin was. Their relationship eventually culminated in a gratuitously explicit scene of intimacy - personally, I prefer stories to cut to black once the characters get past the snogging stage. It felt out of place to me - there was discussion of relationships but nothing particuarly explicit before or after this - but this is adult fiction.

I quite liked the world-building. There were no big info-dumps. Instead the world was built as we went along, watching what the characters did. That said, there were times when things were not made entirely clear. There are a lot of different types of magic and it might have been useful for a character to give a quick rundown at some point. 

This was a good read - and, honestly, a solid four star until that one chapter that was simply not my cup of tea - and I'm likely to pick up the sequel when the libraries open again. 

What are your least favourite romance tropes?

Thursday, 30 April 2020

April Wrap-up

To all of the people who didn't bother to get dressed today, and just threw a jumper on over their pyjamas to get through a Zoom meeting, the people who are counting down the hours to their next Skype call with friends, the people who are struggling with the loss of routine, how are you holding up? 

We've spent all of April in lockdown over here, so, naturally, the sun decided to grace us with its presence. I'm lucky enough to have a small garden and I've discovered how relaxing it is to sit outside and read in the sun.

News from Reading Front

I know, I know. I should be reading all of the long novels on my TBR, and working through the many books I've borrowed, but I've actually been spending my lockdown lunch breaks  finishing The Dark Phoenix Saga. I'm almost there!

As for the books that I have finished...

  • Magi Volume 32 by Shinobu Ohtaka
  • Dolly by Susan Hill - 3 Stars
  • Haikyuu!! Volumes 13, 14, 15 and 16 by Haruichi Furudate - All 5 Stars
News from Writing Front

I feel like I've really gotten into a couple of my character's heads recently. One of them's easy, because his brain works like mine. It's becoming more pronounced in the redraft because I've decided to go all in and set his fight and flight instinct to permanent alert. The other is more surprising as, of all the characters, she's the one with the social skills. It's really handy to know what everyone in the scene is thinking and feeling. It helps me to work out how they would telegraph that and how a person who doesn't have the emotional and social capacity of a drowned rat would react.

News from the Blogging Front

We've been a bit quiet post-wise for a while now. I've been thinking on a few features I can do to ensure that more posts go out per month, but none of them are ready to go yet and we all know how bad I am at keeping features on schedule. (In my defence, I don't watch nearly enough shows to post for You're Watching Wednesday every week.)

I've been considering giving the blog a new look, but I'm minorly concerned about how the weird font colours would react to a new template.

 How was your April? Are you baking banana bread and reorganising your bookshelf, finally working your way through your Netflix list, or taking a leaf out of Ye Olde British Playbook?
Eleanor Shellstrop, Honourary Brit (Apparently)

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Morality for Dummies (You're Watching Wednesday #9)

Good morning. I'm Hannah -

(- And I'm Ivy.)

And -

The feature where we talk about shows -

(- And films.)
The Good Place is extremely difficult to talk about without spoiling the twists and ruining it forever. That said, here's my best attempt.

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is dead. 

Don't ask how, because it's terribly embarrassing and we think you'd rather not hear about it. It's all good though, because her life fighting to save innocent people from death row has earnt her an afterlife in The Good Place, where she will live in her dream house with her soulmate.

There's only one problem. 

She's not the right Eleanor Shellstrop.

This Eleanor Shellstrop was a medium person who lived and died in Phoenix, Arizona, and had a job selling the sick and elderly fake medicine. This Eleanor Shellstrop also doesn't really fancy eternity in the Bad Place

Luckily for Medium-Eleanor, Good-Eleanor's soulmate is Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a nervy, indecisive, and surprisingly ripped philosophy nerd, who agrees to help her become a better person. It's... tough.

I actually watched this a while ago, but I'm finally getting round to writing about it because, right now, it feels topical.

The Good Place is a show that tries to explore what it means to be a good person, even though being a good person can be complicated and messy, and what we owe to each other. The four human main characters (who all died disturbingly young... let's not think about that too much) are all shaped by their backstories, but their pasts are not excuses - they're something to be overcome. As well as Eleanor, who basically raised herself because her parents were useless, and Chidi, who dithers endlessly, there's Tahani (Jameela Jamil), the talented, name-dropping, drop-dead gorgeous socialite who could never measure up to her parent's expectations or her impossible sister, and Jason (Manny Jacinto), the idiot.

These four (with the help of Janet, a walking, talking AI who knows and can provide anything, and another character I can't mention because there are just too many spoilers) slowly become better people over the course of the series as they battle celestial bureaucracy, and all because Chidi looked at Eleanor and felt like he had a moral responsibility to help her. 

It sounds preachy, right? Except, it isn't. It's funny and irreverent with lovable characters you can root for and all of the found family tropes. It doesn't simplify the fact that morality is complicated, it embraces it. It's also one of those shows where anyone could get with anyone. I mean, the set-up's certainly there. That said, there is one pairing that's kind of obvious from the get-go...

To sum up, if you're looking for a fun comedy with messy characters, interesting character dynamics, and complicated themes, you should be watching this.

Who's your favourite character from The Good Place? (As you can probably tell from the mammoth description above, mine's Tahani.)